Most people see films to escape. They want a couple hours of entertainment – to laugh, to cry, to watch buildings and cars get blown up… I watch films to be challenged. I want to take my mind to places and situations I never thought to go to before. This week I gave myself my ultimate movie challenge: a Palestinian film, and one made by a director whose last outing romanticised suicide bombers – the very people who want to kill my family and me.
OMAR, by Israeli-born Hany Abu-Assad, tells the story of a young man from the Palestinian Territories who, along with two of his closest friends, kills an Israeli soldier. When Omar gets caught and is sent to an Israeli prison, his lawyer informs him that even though he didn’t shoot the gun, he still faces the prospect of life behind bars. An Israeli secret service agent gives him a way out, though it comes with a very heavy price. Omar must become an informant for his sworn enemy and deliver his best friend – who also happens to be his girlfriend’s brother – to the Israelis.
Omar agrees to the terms of the release but he’s not committed to fulfilling his end of the deal. Unfortunately for him, though, he is already wearing a scarlet letter. Mistrust runs high amongst the Palestinians and anyone who gets out of jail quickly is regarded with suspicion. He tells his friends he is not a snitch but they don’t believe him, especially when their next plot to attack the Israelis is thwarted. Now Omar has to find out who the real informant is while trying to restore both his friends’ and his girlfriend’s trust in him.
Omar’s girlfriend suggests they move overseas but he’ll hear nothing of it. Palestine is his home and until his country is free, he will never be satisfied. For Omar though, that day may never come. As he slowly uncovers who the traitor in their midst is, he tries to make things right. But it’s already too late, and his own deal with the Israelis has consequences.
As both a Jew and a rational-thinking human being, I have a lot of trouble with this story because it seeks to legitimise jihadism. (Director Abu-Assad has said that he, too, would be a jihadist if he would be living in the Palestinian Territories. He currently lives in the Netherlands.) The reality is that just five kilometers from the separation barrier that tries to keep people like Omar and his murderous friends out of Israel, Arabs are living in peaceful coexistence with their Jewish neighbours. The fact that Abu-Assad can even make a film like OMAR in Israel (it was primarily shot in Nazareth) says something about Israel’s commitment to peace. He should try making a film that is critical of the Chinese government in China or even the Saudi government in Saudi Arabia. He wouldn’t live long enough to see it finished.
As a film critic though, I do appreciate the film’s artistry. The acting is solid, as is the direction and the editing. I didn’t find the ending surprising, as so many other critics did. To me, it was the logical conclusion.
The film premiered in the Un Certain Regard section at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival where it won the Jury Prize. It was also nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film at Oscars earlier this year.
OMAR is screening three times this coming week at the Broadway Cinematheque.
Listen to the review online on Radio 4. (Click on the link. Select Part 2 and slide the time bar over to 38:58.)